Alyson’s Archive #3 – David Bowie, Aladdin Sane and “The Jean Genie”

Welcome to this occasional series where I share the contents of my archive box of teenage memorabilia. I always knew these random bits and pieces would come in handy some day, but little did I think back in the 1970s that they would find their way onto such a thing as a “blog”, courtesy of that as yet unthought of invention, the world wide web! 

One of the things I found in the archive box recently was an old pocket file containing lots of pin-ups from 1970s teen magazines such as Jackie, Fab 208 and this lesser known publication (and one I had forgotten about), called FAN. I can tell which of these pin-ups had appeared on my bedroom wall at some point as the corners are a bit damaged with drawing pin holes or sticky blu-tack. This one of David Bowie was in mint condition however which makes sense as at this time it was David Cassidy and Donny Osmond (I was only 12) who tended to grace my walls, but I had obviously been enough of a fan to carefully remove it from the magazine and keep it for posterity.

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What I’ve discovered to be the most interesting aspect of having kept all this stuff for over 40 years however, is that yet again I seem to have developed a selective memory when it comes to reminiscing about the musical heroes of my youth. It is only after reading the articles on the back of these pin-ups that you work out what was actually happening in the world of pop music in the early ’70s as opposed to what we choose to remember was happening. No need for a long wordy post with this one therefore as it’s just kind of interesting to read this 1973 interview with Mr Bowie as it stands – It took place right around the time of the release of the album “Aladdin Sane” (with it’s iconic lightning bolt cover) and just before he embarked on the tour that would culminate in the “retirement” of the character that had become his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.

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Question Time with David Bowie, not David Dimbleby!

Considering Bowie went on to make albums right up until his death at the beginning of 2016, it is bizarre to read in this 1973 interview that he fully intended to wave goodbye to the music industry at that time and concentrate on other projects. In fact he doubted that he would appear on stage again for a very long time!

Anyway, as the timing of this interview coincided with the release of “Aladdin Sane” (apparently a play on the words “A Lad Insane”), it is entirely appropriate that today’s featured song should be something from that album. The Jean Genie had been a hit for him in December 1972 reaching No. 2 in the UK Singles Chart. It had a protagonist that was partly inspired by his good friend Iggy Pop, or an “Iggy-type” character at any rate. Much has also been made about the title referring to the author Jean Genet however Bowie himself admitted that even if it was the case, it was probably done subconsciously.

The Jean Genie by David Bowie:

So, “What’s It All About?” – I’m loving looking back at all this material from over 40 years ago but time and time again I’m having to reappraise my memories of the times. Back in the ’60s, bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks fully expected their careers to last for 2 or 3 years maximum, and being of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation there was no model to suppose it would turn out to the contrary. Likewise in the early ’70s David Bowie fully embraced that his music career was probably now over and I no doubt just accepted that as being the case back then. How bizarre then to think that I have a friend who is just back from seeing Sir Paul McCartney perform live at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Rolling Stones are still touring and Ray Davis has just been knighted. Who would have thought it?

The Jean Genie Lyrics
(Song by David Bowie)

A small Jean Genie snuck off to the city
Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers
Ate all your razors while pulling the waiters
Talking bout Monroe and walking on Snow White
New York’s a go-go and everything tastes right
Poor little Greenie

The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!

Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile
She loves him, she loves him but just for a short while
She’ll scratch in the sand, won’t let go his hand
He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition
And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear
Poor little Greenie

The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!

He’s so simple minded he can’t drive his module
He bites on the neon and sleeps in the capsule
Loves to be loved, loves to be loved

The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!

The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!

David Bowie, George Michael and “Star People”

Some of you who visit this place from time to time (thank you for that by the way) will know that Mr WIAA had recently entered a piece into a sculpture competition and that it had inspired me to write about a specific song (Alice, Jefferson Airplane and White Rabbit). The awards ceremony took place in London on Monday evening and I’m pleased to say that not only did he win a Bronze Award for the sculpture (up against stiff competition) but he also won a Gold Award for his entry in the 2D category. I also think I mentioned in my last post that there was no monetary award, it was just for the prestige of being the best in your field – Turns out I was wrong and the gold award winners do indeed get a cash prize! We left the venue with a spring in our step and headed back to the hotel for some nice food and wine.

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So, we’d spent the whole of day one of our London Trip simply traveling down from the far North of Scotland, navigating our way to the hotel and attending the awards ceremony. On day two we would hopefully have time for a few of the things tourists do in London before it was time to head back home. Because the theme of the competition entry was the marrying up of sculpture with literature, a trip to the British Library was on the cards, mainly because they have the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland housed there. After dropping off our cases at left luggage and acquiring our blue Oyster Cards (always think of the band Blue Oyster Cult whenever I get one of those but you probably have to be of a certain age to get that joke), we were free to navigate London via its venerable Underground.

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I did spot however that we were starting off on the Victoria Line and which station was only four stops away? It was Brixton, south of the river, and birthplace of Mr David Bowie. I knew there was a mural there of David in his Ziggy Stardust guise which people went to visit and treated as a place to leave tributes. We had the time so why not? It turned out to be incredibly easy to find as the mural is right on the street opposite the exit to the station. It wasn’t very big and has now been covered with a perspex sheet to protect both it, and the messages left by fans, but considering my very first blog post was about the death of David Bowie I thought it was important to have seen it. (Excuse the glare from the perspex but unavoidable and a short film added right at the bottom of this post.)

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Reading the messages that surround the David Bowie mural in Brixton

Starman by David Bowie:

It isn’t big and overwhelming but I did enjoy visiting the Starman’s mural in Brixton – People like to have a shrine, a focal point, so that they can leave messages, floral tributes and gifts and this is just one of those places. It got me thinking however, here we were in Brixton but if we travelled back up the line to Highgate we could see all the messages and floral tributes left for George Michael. In view of the fact I have spent a lot of time recently writing about the sadness I have felt over the loss of George, this seemed the right thing to do. And so, at around lunchtime on Tuesday we found his very house and outside there is a little park which has become a bit of a shrine to him.

Again, just so many messages left by fans and here I was doing something I had never contemplated doing before – Stalking a big star from the world of music but sadly just a couple of months too late. There was a really great looking little pub across the street from his house so we went in and had a lovely lunch. It wasn’t lost on me that he was bound to have popped in for a pint at some point but I was too cool to ask the staff if that was actually the case. I just sat there and imagined the scene of myself, George and Mr WIAA having a drink, some food and a chat, trying to put the world to rights.

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George Michael’s local

So, “What’s It All About?” – It seems as humans that we like to be able to visit a specific place to remember our sadly departed. Don’t want to be morbid but I do actually want a headstone when the time comes as I do want my family to have a place they can visit. From what I saw this week the fans of David Bowie and George Michael also wanted a place to visit and I am glad that I was able to persuade my gold award-winning husband (its ok he won’t be allowed to get big-headed) to come along with me on my pilgrimage. For the record we did also manage to visit the British Library and along with Alice, the diaries of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Magna Carta, we also saw some scribbles by John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, so again very relevant for the blog.

All back to normal now however and as we missed Pancake Day/Shrove Tuesday because of our trip, darling daughter treated us to some tonight. I have already shared David Bowie’s Starman from 1972 but I will leave you with a live version of George singing Star People ’97, funnily enough from 1997 – Enough now, time to move on.

Star People ’97 by George Michael:

Star People Lyrics
(Song by George Michael)

Star people
Counting your money till you soul turns green
Star people
Counting the cost of your desire to be seen

I do not count myself among you
I may be living in a dream
It’s just seem to many of you
Can’t help but hope
There’s a difference between, you and me

You’re a star
(I’m talking to you)
You’re a star

Maybe your mama gave you up boy
(It’s the same old same old)

Maybe your daddy didn’t love you enough girl

Star people
Never forget your secret safe with me
Just look at all wonderful people
Trying to forget they had to pay for what you see

It’s a dream
With a nightmare stuck in the middle
But where would you be
Without all of that attention
You’d die
I’d die
We’d die wouldn’t we
(Well wouldn’t we)

Big, big star
Should go far

Talk about your mother
Talk about your father
Talk about the people
Who have made you what you are
Talk about your teacher
The bully boy who beat you
Talk about the people who have paid
For that new sports car

Did you get off on a bad foot, baby
Do you have a little tale to tell
Is that why you’re a star?
Is that what makes a star?

Nothing comes for nothing, baby
That fame and fortune’s heaven sent
And who gives a fuck about your problems, darling
When you can pay the rent
How much is enough?

Postscript:

Just in case anyone from outside the UK unlikely to ever see the mural in Brixton wants a closer look, here is a short film –  a bit wobbly but a few good close-ups!

David Bowie, “Life on Mars?” and The Mortality Reality Check

Ironically I had already chosen this day, 11th January 2016, to start a blog. The idea behind it was to jot down those memories conjured up by a random piece of music heard in the course of the day. And what a day it turned out to be. News broke this morning, as we were all waking up, that David Bowie had died after an 18 month struggle with cancer. I had noticed a few days earlier that he’d just released a new album to coincide with his 69th  birthday (suddenly prolific in his later years after a long gap with little output), but like most of us I was unaware that he was so ill. A video clip showed him with stylish short cropped hair, smartly dressed, but looking old I thought which made me sad. Sad perhaps because of my own mortality. If our musical heroes were getting old then so must we. This morning’s news confirmed that “The Man Who Fell To Earth” was indeed not immortal.

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Only three times in my life can I remember this much media attention having been paid to the death of a person from the world of music, and they were:

Elvis Presley, who died the day I went back to school after the long summer holidays in 1977. I was only 17 and had been a big Elvis fan mainly because of the movies we had watched on television and then the massive events that were the ’68 Comeback Special and the ’73 Aloha from Hawaii concert broadcast live around the world. In a career stretching back to the mid 1950s it’s sad that so many only remember Elvis in the later jumpsuited, Vegas years when until the early 1970s he truly was still the King of Rock and Roll.

John Lennon, shot down by Mark Chapman at the end of 1980. I was a 20-year-old student at the time and stayed in bed most of the morning listening to BBC Radio 1 which played the music of both The Beatles and Lennon himself. Andy Peebles, a DJ of the day had recently recorded an interview with Lennon, so he found himself suddenly the man of the moment in terms of contributing to the day’s output.

Michael Jacksonthe King of Pop. It was June 2009 and we had just come back from my daughter’s school’s version of Britain’s Got Talent.  She was one of eight performers that night (one of three solo singers) and was by far the youngest entrant at 13. After tremendous praise from our local panel of celebrity judges who forecast her being “snapped up by Simon Cowell”, she ended up not being placed so was upset. A tremendous rush of adrenaline following weeks of preparation which led to disappointment and the low that comes with it. It was when we got home that we heard of the death of Michael Jackson and as we watched footage of him as a very young boy totally outshining his brothers with his singing and dancing, it did make me glad that my 13-year-old daughter had perhaps had her wings clipped as I can think of very few child stars who have gone on to have a long and happy life.

And now we have Mr Bowie. At 69 he has actually had a long life compared to the others listed above who died at 42, 40 and 50 respectively. It is sad that his family and friends will no longer be able to talk with him, work with him and spend time with him but I am not sure if it is true that it is “sad” for the rest of us who did not know him other than through his work. It is more a massive shock that someone who has been around for such a long time as part of the fabric of Britain’s music culture, is suddenly no longer with us. Back to the mortality, reality check. It is sad that his body of work is now complete but what a body of work to leave – It will be added to, new material will be found and it will be reworked for as long as people have the appetite for it. With a creative force such as Bowie whose work never did fit neatly into a particular genre or period, it will keep on appealing to new fans.

So back to the original premise to this blog – The random piece of music heard in the course of the day. I’m going to pick Life On Mars?.

Life On Mars? by David Bowie:

I have watched many video clips of Ziggy Stardust today and heard much analysis of how Bowie pushed boundaries with his androgyny, but here’s the thing, when Life on Mars? hit the charts in June 1973, I was just a 13-year-old girl who loved Top of the Pops and Radio 1’s chart show. I sat poised with my cassette recorder and microphone on a Thursday night at 7.30pm desperately trying to capture my favourite songs with no annoying applause or voice-overs. I liked Life on Mars? a lot because it’s a great sounding song but at 13 I really wouldn’t have understood what androgyny meant and having taken in lots of telly from the mid ’60s onward, he was just another flamboyantly dressed pop star (we’d had the hippy era already and glam rock was well and truly underway by this time). Looking now at the lyrics, they are fairly bizarre and my 13-year-old self wouldn’t have given them much thought. The weirdest thing about Life on Mars? foray into the charts is that it coincided with The Laughing Gnome’s second release after failing miserably to make an impact first time around in 1967. Not part of his grand plan to have both songs around at the same time I imagine but the economics of the recording industry being as they are, they weren’t going to miss out on an income stream from a now popular artist.

My older self now sees what a massive a creative talent David Bowie was and I look forward to revisiting his back catalogue as we all do when something like this happens. When I said earlier that he was just another flamboyantly dressed pop star I will concede that he was indeed the most flamboyant of them all. The striped, sleeveless swimsuit affair and the one-legged jumpsuit ensembles are still deeply troubling to look at today! I will try to make sense of it all although I am not entirely sure we were ever meant to. He was unusual in that he was primarily an actor and artist whose biggest success came in the music industry. Only an actor could reinvent himself, so often, so successfully, into so many great characters.

But when all’s said and done I would just like to know, once and for all, how to pronounce his name – Is is Bow-ie or Bo-wie?  Still working that one out but maybe that’s how it should be for the master of reinvention.  RIP David.

Life On Mars? Lyrics
(Song by David Bowie)

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks
through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it
ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall

Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on…

Postscript:

A brilliant television series, first shown in 2006 was also called Life On Mars. The main character Sam Tyler went back in time to join the 1973 Manchester Police Force. It had a really clever fantasy-esque plotline and a great soundtrack of ’70s songs which made it a must-watch show, especially for me. It was inevitable that Life On Mars? the song, would be heavily used throughout the whole series and probably contributed to it becoming my favourite Bowie song.